Skip Content

21 Sep 2022

Howard League responds to inspection reports on girls in custody

The Howard League for Penal Reform has responded to His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons’ thematic review of outcomes for girls in custody and the independent review of progress at HMYOI Wetherby and the Keppel unit, published today (Wednesday 21 September).

There were 14 girls in custody in England and Wales at the time of the inspection, held either in Wetherby young offender institution (YOI) or in secure children’s homes (SCHs). The national system to house girls in custody was described as “frail” by the Chief Inspector of Prisons, with outcomes for the girls deemed to be poor and a high level of need identified in the cohort.

The girls in custody were seen to have complex needs, including past trauma, substance misuse, neurodivergency and mental ill-health – with rates of self-harm found to be 12 times higher than among boys. The environment provided was seen to be insufficient for their needs, and although frontline staff were doing their best, the estates were not functioning effectively or adequately.

Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The inspectorate’s findings are clear evidence that the current situation of girls being held in Wetherby is not sustainable or tenable.

“These girls are vulnerable, with complex needs, and are often placed in custody for no reason except that there are no places for them in hospitals or in the community.

“The government must come up with a long-term solution so that vulnerable girls are not being held in a prison that is already failing boys, and which is not resourced to meet their needs.”

Wetherby is a boys’ prison, but a small number of girls were moved to the Keppel unit last year as a result of the closure of places elsewhere.

The legal team at the Howard League for Penal Reform have assisted and represented a number of girls held at Wetherby, and have seen first-hand the impacts of girls being held in estates not built to house them.

The inspection of Wetherby found that there were still “weaknesses in equality work.” Staff were not given any guidance on supporting children from protected groups, and outcomes for Black and minority ethnic and white girls were not compared against each other, meaning that differences in outcomes could not be identified or addressed.

One girl, housed in the Keppel unit, told us that racism and differential treatment was a pervasive issue throughout the YOI, with Black children consistently being victim to more uses of force. She noted that Black girls were also let out of their cells less often, and were quicker to be labelled “violent” than their white counterparts.

In her time at the YOI, the girl reflected that being a girl in a boys’ prison, and a Black girl in a majority white unit, compounded to create layers of differential treatment used to discriminate against her. In recounting everything from her regime, time out of cell, access to activities and education, the girl highlighted that she received restricted or unequal provision. This was often down to the other girls’ unwillingness to ‘mix’ with her, thus confining her to her cell, and down to the scarcity of education and activities on offer to the girls in general.

The girl had raised these issues many times, but nothing had come of raising her concerns. As a result, she did not want our legal team to take legal action on her behalf because she did not feel it would make any difference. In recounting her experiences, the girl described the helpless and vulnerable position she continually found herself in when being seen as angry would only make her situation worse.

She said: “I can’t get up and say I know what I’m entitled to. I can’t win.”


Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Wetherby inspection report and the ‘Outcomes for girls in custody’ thematic review is available from His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons website.
  3. Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, published a blogpost on issues in the Keppel unit in March of this year.


Noor Khan
Press and Public Affairs Officer
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7873


  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation